The Palestinians cannot return to peace talks at this time because of "fundamental disagreements" with Israel on what should be on the agenda, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in an interview published Thursday, rebuffing an appeal by US President Barack Obama that both sides get back to the table promptly.
Abbas said he wants to avoid a crisis with the Obama administration at any cost, but that "there is no common ground for discussion" with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Earlier this week, an increasingly impatient Obama summoned Netanyahu and a reluctant Abbas to a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Obama told the two leaders that too much time had already been wasted and that it was time to resume peace talks. He reiterated his call in a speech to the General Assembly on Wednesday, saying, "The time has come to relaunch negotiations - without preconditions."
Netanyahu had praised Obama's UN address, which also backed Israel's right to live securely and stressed its legitimacy as a "Jewish state."
The speech was "good and positive" for Israel and for moving the peace process forward, the prime minister told The Jerusalem Post.
However, speaking in New York, Abbas said that even at the risk of alienating Obama, he could not return to talks without a clear agenda.
"In all honesty, we want to protect our relations with President Obama under any conditions," he told the London-based Al Hayat newspaper. "We don't want to come out with a crisis with the Americans, or create a crisis. But in the meantime, we can't go on unless there is a clear path. The road must be defined so we can know where we are going."
Abbas called again for a complete settlement freeze.
"We can't accept the status quo because a partial halt means a continuation of settlements," he said. "Even if it is halted by 95 percent, it is still a continuation of settlement activities."
Abbas said that despite "fundamental disagreements" with Netanyahu over the terms of negotiations, he will keep talking to Israel about day-to-day issues that concern the Palestinians, including security and the economy. "We don't reject the principle of talks and dialogue," he said.
In Jerusalem on Thursday, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon suggested the Palestinians were wasting time by insisting on a settlement freeze. He noted that when required to do so in the past - as part of a peace deal with Egypt and the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza - Israel had uprooted settlements.
He disputed the Palestinians' contention that, as opposed to Israel, they have lived up to their peace obligations, such as disarming terror groups.
"We know what needs to be done," Ayalon told The Associated Press, referring to the possible future dismantling of settlements. "So why single out this one issue, leaving aside the other important issues to us, [such as] Palestinian terror."
Herb Keinon and Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report